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What is True Repentance?
By David A. DePra
Repentance is a, "change of mind." That is what the Greek word means. And the word, "mind," isn’t a matter of BRAINS. It is our intent, attitude, and motivation. And not surprisingly, the phrase, "be converted," means something similar, i.e., "to change directions." In both cases, we see CHANGE.
However, we must be clear about what kind of change repentance involves. Repentance is not merely altered conduct. Anyone can alter their conduct if they come under a rewards and punishment system of religion. Neither is repentance merely a matter of being sorry for my sins. Of course, that will be included, but this is not the root of repentance. Repentance, when all is said and done, is a change of my mind – my heart attitude – towards GOD HIMSELF.
We must see this or we will never understand repentance. It is a change of mind towards GOD HIMSELF -- from rebellion to surrender. Indeed, repentance makes possible a change of RELATIONSHIP with God.
Repentance involves REVERENCE for God – instead of indifference, neglect, or rebellion. I begin to take seriously what God takes seriously, and begin to say the same thing about sin, and about Christ as my Savior, as God says. In short, if I repent, I come to terms with the TRUTH. I surrender to God.
The key to repentance is to see that we have been WRONG WITH GOD. I certainly do confess my sins. Sins are the many violations of God’s law which characterize our lives. But sins are really only the evidence of our being wrong with God. On the other hand, being, "wrong with God," involves more than just sins. I am wrong with God because I have been living life on my own terms – living life independent of God. Doing my own thing. Being my own God. OWNING MYSELF. This is THE SIN.
Here we see a definition of the sin of UNBELIEF. Unbelief is the sin of the human race. The term may be a bit confusing to some, for many of us think that faith is merely believing true facts, and that, consequently, unbelief is merely, "NOT believing true facts." No. Rather, faith is a moral surrender TO the Truth, who is a Person. And that makes unbelief the opposite. Therefore, faith is a condition of being RIGHT with God through Christ. Unbelief is the condition of being WRONG with God because I am living life on my own terms. Unbelief a refusal to believe, a neglect to believe, and a moral position outside of accountability to God.
It is possible for a person to live in unbelief, but to be a nice person. You can be a person who, "has really never done anything wrong," and be in unbelief. Indeed, you can be an upstanding, church-going, respected individual, who serves on committees, and lives your religion with dedication. You might even be in the ministry. But you might still be WRONG with God. All of the things you are doing may not be the outcome of repentance – but a substitute for it. The question is whether you are living life on your own terms, or on God’s terms.
Many people today have no frame of reference for what I’m saying. That’s because repentance is rarely preached or taught. Instead, we are taught about all the things Jesus will DO for us if we accept Him. The reality is, however, God generally cannot bless a life lived on our terms. He blesses only a life which is seeking to live on His terms.
Again we see direction – MORAL direction. Repentance and conversion do not mean perfection. They speak of DIRECTION. In other words, I will always sin, but if I have repented, I will not WANT to sin. My flesh might still like to sin, but the REAL ME won’t want to sin. I will be like Paul in Romans 7: "If I don’t want to sin, then it is no longer I, but sin in me."
Repentance is CHANGE. Thus, if I haven’t changed in my direction and heart attitude towards God, I haven’t repented. And it doesn’t matter how much I’ve changed my conduct. I must repent of being WRONG WITH GOD, and change my direction over to being right with Him through Jesus Christ – change over to living on God’s terms, to His glory, in holiness and faith.
Repent and Believe
The first words of the gospel were, "Repent and believe." The two cannot be separated. Why? Think about it. What are we being told to REPENT OF? Well, of UNBELIEF! Sure. And by definition, if we repent of UNBELIEF, what must we do? Well, BELIEVE! Can we see this? You cannot repent of unbelief without believing, because if you are repenting of unbelief, you are repenting precisely BECAUSE you now DO believe!
Faith carries the idea of total dependence upon God, and a moral surrender to Him. Faith is not an intellectual or emotion transaction. It is MORAL. Therefore we see that is impossible to put one’s faith in God unless we also confess that we have had our faith elsewhere. Again – a CHANGE is necessary. Indeed, it is impossible to BELIEVE, unless we confess we have been living in UNBELIEF.
Herein we see repentance. Repentance is a change FROM unbelief TO belief. But again -- not an intellectual or emotional change. No. But a moral change. I repent of living in unbelief – of living life on my own terms. And if I do repent of unbelief, by definition I will believe! This will result in a total surrender to Jesus Christ.
So we are able to draw this conclusion: There is really only ONE sin that we must repent of in order to believe: The sin of NOT believing. There is only ONE sin we must repent of to come to Jesus: The sin of not coming to Jesus. Again -- There is only ONE sin we must repent of in order to believe: The sin of not believing.
This is why we cannot be saved unless we repent. It isn’t because God, "requires" repentance as a standard to meet before He will save us. No. We must repent in order to be saved because repenting is, by definition, a turning from unbelief -- to faith in Jesus Christ.
So to summarize, it is impossible to come to Jesus without repenting. Why? Because coming to Jesus is precisely what repentance IS!
Can we see this? There is no other definition of repentance in scripture. By definition, repentance is a changing of my mind towards God. That change of mind is a change from unbelief TO faith in Christ. Thus, repentance IS—IS—IS a turning to Christ. So rather than say repentance is a, "requirement," for salvation, we need to see that repentance IS a turning TO salvation in Christ. You cannot, "just repent," or, "just believe." You have to repent AND believe. You cannot have the one without the other. That is why the phrase, "Repent and believe," is a concise expression of the gospel.
Incidentally, lest we misunderstand, when I say that there is only one sin we need to repent of, this doesn’t mean we fail to confess and repent of other sins. No. But isn’t it a fact that no matter how far along you are in your Christian walk, that you are still seeing things you need to repent of, and to change? Sure. That is a sign of maturity. But note: Some of these things were IN YOU when you were saved, and yet you were saved without repenting of them – indeed you probably didn’t even know about them in yourself. The point is this: Once we repent of unbelief, and surrender to Christ, the RESULT will be an ongoing exposure of sin, and freedom from it. Repent of unbelief and you are in contact with THE TRUTH and THE LIGHT Himself. Your other sins will begin to fall like dominos – as the outcome of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.
Life and Death
All of us are accountable to God. Fully and completely. This isn’t something God dreamed up to keep us under control. It is the very purpose for which God created man: To be dependent upon Him, to experience Him, to belong to Him. Of course, none of this was for God’s benefit. God does not have an inferiority complex, such that He created creatures from whom He could demand worship and accountability under threat of punishment. No. When we are in the hands of God and living on His terms we benefit. It is, in fact, what LIFE is all about – true life.
Adam declared independence from God and when he did, that is exactly what he got: Independence from God. But independence from God is separation from God, and that is DEATH. Ever since, the human race has been cut off from God – which means we are all born without any Truth in us, any light in us, and without any LIFE in us. The only solution is to come back to God – through Jesus Christ.
Now, God does not blame us for being born in Adam. You and I did not make the choice to be born with a sin nature, cut off from God. No. We were physically born into that condition. But the fact that we are not to blame for being born in Adam does not change the fact that we were, and that because of it, we have NO LIFE in us. We are dead, like it or not. We still need LIFE. And it is found only in Christ.
The gospel will expose the fact that we are dead in sin. It brings light into our world about our true condition and about Jesus. This is why the true message of the gospel must bring people to see their need; must show them to be sinners. But not JUST that. The gospel is the GOOD NEWS that Jesus has already done everything to make it possible for us to be delivered from the old creation, and be born again. So in the gospel we have this two-fold Truth: That we are dead sinners. But Jesus has won our salvation. Thus, REPENT and BELIEVE.
Once we hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and recognize that God has made a way out of this old creation back to Himself through His Son, we are to blame if we do not repent and believe. If, through either neglect or a refusal to come to Jesus, we remain dead in sin, we are taking ownership over our fallen condition in Adam. This is unbelief. It is what makes us willfully wrong with God. If we persist in this over a lifetime, God will give us what we have taken ownership over: Ourselves. Death. Separation from God.
Man is dead and needs LIFE. The Holy Spirit will show a dead man just how dead he is, and point the way to Jesus Christ for LIFE. Man was never stripped of his free will or conscience. Once God brings light it is possible for a free will person to choose life – or death.
So we can see that the fundamental thing that is wrong with man is not so much the sins we commit – or the things we DO. No. It is what we ARE. Man is DEAD. Man doesn’t just do wrong things – he is a wrong creature. He is wrong with God. And we have all affirmed this one way or another. We must repent and believe. We must change our minds from being wrong with God – by repenting of that – and if we do we will turn to Christ and be made right with Him through the new birth.
The Good News
It is quite possible to live life on my own terms, and to do it religiously. I may have an entire list of rules and laws that I follow, and give a show of religion towards God, but all of it may be nothing more than an extension of my independence from God. Some of the most religious, seemingly pious people, who keep tons of rules and laws, are in fact, standing aloof from Christ. (like the Galatians) They have never repented of being wrong with God. They have simply created a religious system to put a band aid on the fact.
Part of the problem is the gospel message which is often preached today. So often you hear, "Ask Jesus to come into your heart." Now, that sounds good. And if we really mean by that everything the Bible describes as faith in Christ, well, then I suppose that it is fine. But often it is meant to mean nothing more than, "joining a club called Christianity." Or joining a church. Many people are never taught what they are doing when they ask Jesus into their hearts. It is therefore possible that you could ask Jesus to come into your heart, but do so without any thought at all of repentance.
Conversion to Christ without repentance is an oxymoron – for we have seen that conversion to Christ IS repentance. But the message we hear today more than often almost sounds like the new birth is like a club to join: Just open your heart and ask Jesus to come in. But such a message can be deceptive, and is one of the major reasons why the church is so weak today. Many who belong to churches have NEVER REPENTED – but consider themselves born again.
There is everything right about wanting LIFE. It is good that we would want everything Jesus has done for us. But it is morally impossible to receive LIFE unless we first come to the Cross and see our old life DIE. That is repentance. Furthermore, it is impossible for us to receive everything Jesus has done for us if we don’t give ourselves to Him. This is really the whole point. It is one thing to ask Jesus into your heart. It is another to give yourself to Him.
I don’t want to quibble about words. I am talking about the message behind the words. The gospel message is, "Repent and believe." It is not, "believe." Neither is it, "repent." It is, "repent AND believe." Indeed, if we only understood it, we would see that it is morally impossible to repent without believing, and just as impossible to believe without repenting. The two go together with regards to conversion.
However, God is merciful and faithful. He knows our hearts. Therefore, we can be sure that anyone who asks Jesus to come into their heart – and REALLY means it – will be heard by God. They will be heard even if they have not repented. Even if they haven’t even started. How so? Well, God will by-pass their words and understanding, and begin to draw them to Jesus. They said they wanted Jesus -- so God will begin to draw them to Jesus. But wait. If someone is being drawn to Jesus, they are being drawn to repentance. Absolutely. Notice that: Repentance is the result of God drawing us to Jesus. Of seeing LIGHT. The closer a person is drawn to Jesus, the closer they will get to light. And that light will expose them as sinners, and Jesus as their only hope. If that person meant it when they, "asked Jesus to come into their heart," then they will respond by repenting of being wrong with God, and by affirming their desire for Christ. They will be saved. Or it may be that by the time the person asks Jesus to come into their heart, that they have already come close to Jesus and are in the process of repenting. Either way, repentance is the result of seeing Christ, and of seeing myself in the light of Him.
Actually, this is how God works with all of us. Even if we are repenting at the point we ask Jesus in our hearts, we got to that point because God was drawing us to Jesus. So regardless of how we state it, repentance is the result of coming closer to Christ.
Do you see what I am saying? If you really want Jesus to come into your heart, God will begin to draw you to Christ. And the closer you get to Christ, the closer you will get to repentance. This is certain. Thus, once again we see that repentance and salvation are inseparable. The two go together.
Herein we see again why it is somewhat incorrect to say that, "God REQUIRES repentance for salvation." This almost sounds as if God leaves the repenting to us, and then once we meet that standard, God gives us salvation. No. God doesn’t, "require," repentance for salvation. God brings us TO repentance, and THROUGH repentance, when He brings us TO Jesus. It is all the same conversion process.
God brings the light and the Truth. God grants repentance. God draws people to Christ. Our responsibility is not to initiate any of this – for we cannot. But we do have the responsibility to respond to God. Once the light dawns on us, we must respond to the light by coming into the light. We must respond to the Truth by confessing the Truth about ourselves and about Christ. That response will be more than intellectual or emotional. It will be moral. We will REPENT of being wrong with God, and surrender to Christ by faith. Again, we will REPENT AND BELIEVE.
God does not act upon us and SAVE us. No. Such teaching is the doctrine of unconditional election and is error. Rather, God brings LIGHT. Light is not salvation. Light is the Truth about salvation, and again, it will expose me as a needy sinner, and reveal Christ as Savior. This is all part of how God draws us to Christ. But at some point we must COME TO JESUS by faith. We must surrender – repent and believe.
Incidentally, if you want to know why so many people in churches don’t seem to have any illumination of the Truth in them, and why so many hardly seem to have any consciousness of Christ at all, right here is the answer. Perhaps they have never repented. Perhaps, despite the show of religion, they are still in the process of being drawn to Christ – but not yet born again. Or perhaps as God has tried to draw them to Christ, and grant them repentance, they have resisted the light – because they will NOT accept being exposed as a sinner.
The possibilities here are many. But despite the fact that we cannot judge people, if a person is truly born again; truly converted to Christ, they GOT THAT WAY by repenting and believing. Therefore the lack of evidence that people have repented and believed may be because they are still in a process of being drawn to Christ, but have yet to actually COME to Him.
The new birth is REAL. It is not religion. Where is the REAL today?
What is Repentance?
For godly sorrow works repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world works death. (2 Cor. 7:10)
Godly sorrow is here contrasted over and against worldly sorrow. What is the difference between the two?
Worldly sorrow is the result of getting caught. I am sorry for sin because it has brought consequences upon me. Worldly sorrow really has nothing to do with being wrong with God.
Godly sorrow is a realization that I have been wrong with God. I am sorry for sin because it IS sin, and is again God. This leads to REPENTANCE – in other words – it leads to a change of mind or attitude towards God.
This verse also says that once we repent of sin we will never go back. This doesn’t mean we will never sin again. But it does mean that we will not want to sin. There has come a moral change of direction and intent.
Of course, we are not left to ourselves to gender Godly sorrow. It is the Holy Spirit who convicts of sin. But we do have to respond. The way we do this is to be honest and open. Confess the Truth about ourselves and about our sin before God. Become fully accountable to Him. Since the Holy Spirit is in this thing, if we do turn our hearts in that way, we will contact Jesus Christ. Repentance will follow because we have seen Jesus.
You cannot repent unless you see Jesus. If you try, you will end up defeated and depressed, because you have not seen the solution for the sin you are confessing. Neither can you believe unless you have repented, for you must repent of NOT believing before you CAN believe.
If there is one thing we need to see, and which I have tried to convey, it is that these things are not religious exercises. They are not merely doctrines to believe in. Repentance is not a THING. Faith is not a THING. These are relationship words – words that take us back to what we are to be before God Himself. Truth is all about a person’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is a living thing; an eternal thing.
Repentance is a change of mind – a change of intent towards God, from that of living independent of Him, to that of belonging to Him. The result of such a change will not only be new life in Christ Jesus, but one which strives to live free from sin, unto God’s glory.*
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